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For Spring 2017, The North Face has refreshed their Apex line of windproof jackets and introduced the fully waterproof Apex Flex GTX series of jackets. The Apex Flex GTX is constructed from a new bonded waterproof fabric that combines a Gore-Tex waterproof membrane with an "ultra-soft knit interior" and a "stretch-woven exterior" to create a jacket that prioritizes comfort and wear-ability as well as impermeability to water. With the Apex Flex series, The North Face promises jackets that are “impossibly dry” and “ultra soft” and we were very interested to see if they lived up to that hype.
The Men’s Apex Flex GTX Jacket is performance/hiking oriented waterproof shell priced at $279.99 (CAD) that uses the aforementioned Gore-Tex powered Flex material in its construction. It has a permanently attached hood, pit-zip vents under each arm for breathability, waterproof zippers, two hand pockets just about where you expect them to be, and a chest pocket on the front-left side of the jacket. The women’s version has similar construction, but eschews the chest pocket for a smaller forearm pocket on the left sleeve that still offers enough room to keep a list of how much worse pockets are on women’s clothes than on men’s.
My first impression upon getting my hands on the Apex Flex GTX Jacket was that the fabric certainly does feel much nicer than what I normally associate with a Gore-Tex waterproof material. The material feels downright good, pleasant to the touch and flexible. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t co-operate with our review schedule, so we were forced to test the jacket’s waterproof claims manually, by flicking, splashing and pouring water on the jacket during wear. The impermeability of a Gore-Tex style garment is a function of two things: The Gore-Tex membrane, which, in this case, is sandwiched into a laminate between inner and outer layers of fabric that prevents water from passing all the way through the material; and a durable water repellant (DWR) layer that creates a hydrophobic surface on the outside of the garment which causes water to bead and roll off the garment easily, rather than soaking into the outer layer of the laminate. I have to say, the Apex Flex GTX Jacket has the best DWR layer I’ve ever seen on a coat. Water beaded and rolled off the coat no matter how much we threw at it. The way water behaved as it slid and rolled off the coat did seem to defy possibility: Myth Confirmed.
In terms of both smoothness and pliability, the Flex material is impressive. The outer layer feels good, smooth to the touch, not unlike a hardface fleece, but without nearly as much bulk. The inner layer, though obviously synthetic, feels near enough to a comfortable cotton t-shirt that it makes the Apex Flex GTX Jacket an attractive choice to throw on over a short-sleeved shirt and directly against bare skin, compared to the relatively harsh feel of a traditional Gore-Tex waterproof shell. On the flexibility front, the Flex material is similarly impressive. Grabbing the back, where you find the largest continuous panel of Flex material and bunching it feels good, revealing the barest crinkle of the waterproof Gore-Tex layer sandwiched between the soft inner and outer layers. Compared to the Gore-Tex’s 3L Pro Shell material used in other jackets, there’s no comparison: The Flex material is worlds more pliable, and handling the Pro Shell material after the Flex felt like handling a paper bag in terms of both flexibility and smoothness. Compared to other Gore-Tex offerings though, the differences are less pronounced. Pulling out my own daily-driver waterproof shell, a few-years-old Gore-Tex Active Shell from The North Face’s Summit Series, the Flex material once again felt much better. Taking some time with the two for a very close comparison revealed that the Flex material is not objectively more flexible than Gore-Tex’s traditional Active Shell material, however its overall better feel contributes to the impression that it. The crinkling of the Gore-Tex membrane is quieted by the Flex material's laminate construction, and it feels, to the touch, closer to a hardface fleece than a traditional Gore-Tex product. That feeling contributes to a sense that the Apex Flex GTX Jacket behaves more like a fleece soft shell than perhaps it actually does. Regardless, the Flex material is soft by any measure. It feels better and more flexible than any other fully waterproof material that I’ve worn in the past.
While the Flex material is remarkably soft given its properties, unfortunately the same cannot be said for the jacket on the whole, which can be quite stiff along its seams. The 3-layer Flex material is noticeably thicker than either Gore-Tex’s Active or Pro Shell materials to begin with. While this is neither a problem, nor unexpected on its own, the North Face’s choice of seam construction makes it one. The Apex Flex series use tape sealed waterproof seam construction which makes it difficult to identify the specific type of seam used in the jacket. In simple terms, including the tape seal, the soft 3-layer Flex material becomes a fairly rigid seam of between 7 and 16 total layers depending on the number of folds in the type of seam The North Face has chosen to use. These seams, especially around hardware such as zippers, are notably stiff, especially when compared against the pliability of the Flex material used in its construction. This is most notable is under the arms, where the two-panel back joins the two-panel front around the base of the pit-zip to create effectively a five-seam joint in a fairly small area. Writing this review, I was left wondering what the Apex Flex GTX Jacket might have looked like if The North Face had decided to use their Fuseform technology in the construction of the jacket, though such a decision would have undoubtedly driven up the quite reasonable price over what, at the end of the day, is a fairly minor quibble. It’s also worth noting that I did not have enough time with the jacket to see if the seam stiffness lessened with wear. Something I suspect it likely would do.
What may or may not be a minor issue, however, is the Apex Flex GTX Jacket’s weight and packability. The slightly thicker than usual material used in its construction means two things: The Apex Flex GTX Jacket cannot compress as much as a similar Gore-Tex Active or Pro shell, and it’s heavier than other jackets that offer similar waterproof performance. At 680 grams in a Medium (A little lighter than two cans of Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup.) according to the North Face’s spec sheet the Apex Flex GTX Jacket is heavier than every other performance-oriented waterproof shell in The North Face’s lineup at the moment. That said, it is still lighter than the non-waterproof soft shell Men’s Apex Bionic 2 Hoodie, with which it shares part of its name. The North Face, at this point, would probably protest that this is a feature not a bug, and they would be right. In the Apex Flex GTX jacket, The North Face has prioritized comfort and wear-ability within a package that offers performance oriented features and, in that niche, they’ve done an excellent job. The cost of those priorities is weight and packability, making the Apex Flex GTX Jacket a less than ideal choice for thru-hikers or to take along on longer multi-day hikes. For day hikes, or shorter multi-day trips where rain is expected I wouldn’t hesitate to reach for the Apex Flex GTX Jacket.
And that’s where the Apex Flex GTX Jacket seems to be designed to shine: In applications where performance is desired, but weight and space-savings aren’t mission critical. Its price-point backs this up. At $279.99 CAD, the Apex Flex GTX Jacket lives in the middle of The North Face’s line-up, and even towards the bottom of the price ladder among their Gore-Tex equipped shells. At that price, it may be the perfect daily-driver rain shell. It lets you have the functionality of a Gore-Tex piece in a jacket that’s comfortable to throw on over anything. The Apex Flex GTX Jacket would be a welcome presence on any vacation that featured hiking as an activity, rather than the main event, or on urban backpacking adventures where it can be left in the hostel whenever the sun is expected to shine. Am I going to rush out and buy one to replace the perfectly good Gore-Tex Active Shell that’s sitting in my closet? Probably not, but if you’re in need of a new waterproof shell? If you want a waterproof shell that’s, on the whole, more comfortable than anything else on the market and will do most things, then the Apex Flex GTX Jacket is a great option, and one that represents good value for the money.